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Review: The Profound Human Stories of 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' by Oliver Sacks

By Gokul KP

Photo: University College Oxford
Photo: University College Oxford

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks features neurological tales, case studies, and anecdotes of patients whom the author Dr. Oliver Sacks, a renowned neurologist, had encountered during his lifetime - patients who were afflicted with unusual or inexplicable disorders like Korsakoff’s syndrome, Tourette's, and other disorders.

Arguably Sacks’ most famous work, the 1985 book has twenty-four essays spread across four sections (‘Losses’, ‘Excesses’, ‘Transports’, and ‘The World of the Simple’), each introduced by a clinical account followed by case histories about that respective section. Although any synopsis or summary of the book online would make it look like yet another recollection of the past cases a doctor has worked on, this extraordinary work is nothing close to it.

The book could be described as ‘a voyage into the unknown territories of the brain’, and it is both an enlightening and deeply moving piece of art (and I do not use the word art lightly here). Sacks has a decidedly philosophical approach to the topics, and the style of text on some pages could even be deemed poetic sometimes. But what truly captured my attention was the empathy and respect with which he treated each patient’s story and the wisdom he imparts while discussing the afflictions in the book.

Each chapter elicits different emotions - fascination, emptiness, inspiration, and even anger. Every case succeeds in piquing the reader's interest - even leaving them perplexed sometimes. But often, the stories leave us with a sense of tragedy and awe owing to how intimately the author describes the conditions and day-to-day lives of the patients. We do not always leave heartbroken - there are multiple cases where the patients recover from the misfortune (even if not completely) and get back to normalcy, in body or spirit - thanks to the of work Dr. Sacks and his team.

The book begins with an essay about a musician/teacher who loses the ability to identify the objects and people he sees. Although his visual agnosia left musical abilities unaffected, he often could not recognize his students or other familiar faces. The title of the essay (and the book) comes from the incident where he once grabbed the top of his wife’s head, thinking it was a hat.

Other significant chapters include cases of ‘Cupid’s Disease’, detailed cases of people with Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy, and even a chapter on Hildegard of Bingen, whose drawings displayed the visions she had during bouts of migraine.

My personal favorite essays were from the fourth section, which addressed individuals with severe mental deficits. It featured Rebecca, who despite having an IQ of 60, displayed excellent affinity towards poetry and theatre, and twins who communicated with each other using prime numbers and could accurately predict the day on which any date would fall for the next 80,000 years. Another interesting case was Jose, an autistic patient whose artistic talent Dr. Sacks discovered and therefore was able to provide a setting where he could thrive, despite what could otherwise have been a miserable existence.

The patients in the book struggle a lot with the realities they face. They are confused and unsure about how their body and brains work, and their memories and senses are drastically affected. Still, they rarely give in. In these circumstances, the thoroughly professional manner in which Dr. Sacks interacts with and comprehends the physical and mental state of the patients is very commendable. And more often than not, we get to see the enduring human spirit of the subjects in full display. The book has succeeds at illuminating the personal and emotional aspects of the individuals living with these illnesses.

Almost all the chapters read like stories, but the language resembles medical papers more than a typical non-fiction text. Sacks inserts numerous references and quotes from other pioneers in the fields of medicine, psychology, and neurology in all chapters, and draws parallels between many of the symptoms and mannerisms his patients exhibit to previously recorded cases that these individuals (including A.R. Luria, Sigmund Freud, etc.) have discussed.

There were instances where I had to refer to the dictionary or the internet to fully grasp what his meaning (terms like Proprioception, Meningioma, Aphasia, etc. could potentially throw you off-track). Still, Sacks makes such complex neurological concepts as accessible as possible, even for readers with no medical background. And considering the kind of stories the author has managed to narrate with such conviction and truthfulness, this drawback dwarfs in comparison. By the time you finish most chapters, you will have at least a light grasp on the basics of the inner workings of the brain.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a beautifully written book that maintains an excellent literary standard. The book does not fail to entertain despite the technicalities of its subject matter, and it would serve as a treat to especially those who find neurology and physiology intriguing. The author skilfully narrates each case with the right amount of detail and with the lucidity of a seasoned writer. We see all his patients as real human beings and not test subjects. It does not feel like he uses them as mere educational content; it is clear that he listens to what each of them has to say and has their best interests at heart while suggesting personalized treatments. This humanistic approach adds another layer of intimacy to the essays and brings the reader emotionally closer to the book.

The book was eye-opening as it showed how the influence neurophysiology has on our behavior and identity is not trivial. It was also a novel experience for me as the author recounted experiences from his knowledge back in the 1980s - vastly different from what we are at least partially accustomed to today.

The book is also a stark reminder of how often the world tends to ‘other’ anyone who does not fit into the mold of ‘normal’ human behavior. The writer acknowledges that the world is not always kind to those who are disabled, are affected by illnesses that make their day-to-day lives effortful and demanding, and are less fortunate concerning mental and physical faculties.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in having a glimpse of the complexities of the human mind and knowing about neurological conditions that have life-changing impacts. The philosophical questions many of these disorders raise about the nature of perception and reality deserve more examination, and Sacks leaves us with enough to get started on these ourselves. The blend of scientific rigor and compassionate storytelling he has employed in his work is bound to leave a lasting impression on any reader. Its interesting title originally compelled me to pick it up despite knowing nothing of its content, but I am happy I did. This book is one of the most captivating works I have ever encountered.


About the Writer

Gokul KP is a Queer writer and aspiring journalist from Kerala, India. He holds an engineering degree and works as a Business Manager in Bangalore, India. His work, which spans fiction and non-fiction, has appeared on multiple websites and online publications and has covered topics related to mental health, politics, mainstream media, pop culture, and gender & sexuality.

He also tries to use the platforms available to him, including his Instagram account (@kpgokul), to spread awareness about climate change, LGBTQIA+ rights, feminism, etc. He is an ardent 'horror' fan and considers Stephen King a source of inspiration.


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